Report: Miami officers who wear bodycams twice as likely to be cleared of complaints

A six-month study says the most common problem investigators face is microphones not being turned on


By Charles Rabin
Miami Herald

MIAMI — Miami police officers who wear body cameras are twice as likely to be cleared of misconduct complaints, and the most common problem associated with the camera is its microphone not being turned on, a new study by the city says.

Most complaints involving police body cameras come from District 5, a triangular swath in the city’s northern end that is majority Black, according to the most recent census.

A six-month study by the city’s Civilian Investigative Panel into the still controversial technology found that the most common problem the public and investigators face associated with the camera is its microphone not being turned on. The city’s independent police oversight panel also recommended that technology be installed that would automatically start a camera when an officer draws a weapon.

Interim CIP Director Rodney Jacobs said overall, properly used police body cameras give officers more protection and let oversight investigators more accurately assess complaints.

“When the camera is used properly, it’s probably one of the biggest tools we have,” Jacobs said. “With it, we find our cases on merit 75 percent of the time. In the past that’s been a critique. So it allows us to do our job more efficiently and it creates better accountability for police.”

For cops, cameras do far more good than harm

Perhaps the least surprising finding in the 28-page report, according to advocates who pushed for the cameras as far back as a decade ago, is that the technology benefits police more than it harms them. The CIP report found that in two out of three cases, officers were cleared of wrongdoing because the camera didn’t support a misconduct charge.

That outcome was prophesied by former Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates almost a decade ago when his staff was the first in Miami-Dade County to be outfitted with the new gear. The technology was riveting at the time. But a dubious public and apprehensive police unions cast doubt on whether it would be fair to everyone involved. The public was worried video could be manipulated through the on and off switch. Police countered that the split second it would take to turn on the device could cost an officer a life.

Now, almost a decade later, many of those concerns no longer exist. Police, for the most part, have become accustomed to the cameras. Though concerns about people making false complaints and not being punished still occur.

“I think it needs some work. But overall, I think it’s a good thing,” said Tommy Reyes, president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police. “I do think it helps more than not.”

Recently, Miami Police Chief Manny Morales altered his department’s policy, outfitting sergeants in field operations with cameras. He also increased the storage time for the video from a month, to one year.

“It’s a valuable tool that offers transparency, while ensuring officer accountability and it restores public trust,” the chief said.

The CIP studied the years 2018 through 2021. It looked at 122 body-worn camera violations from 66 officers.

Mic’s off and cameras on supervisors

The study found the vast majority of complaints came from the district with the largest Black population. It doesn’t try to explain why that is the case, or opine on how to solve the disparity. According to the most recent census study, Miami’s District 5, which runs west of Biscayne Boulevard through Liberty City and north and east of the boulevard to Shorecrest and Belle Meade, is 52% Black.

Miami Commissioner Christine King, who represents the district, said a sit-down with the city’s police chief is likely.

“I am concerned by the findings [that most complaints about the cameras are in the commissioner’s district]. I will be working with the City of Miami police chief to implement corrective actions,” she said.

Several high-profile cases involving Miami police and body cameras illustrate why the oversight panel concluded that microphones should be on whenever a camera is in use and that supervisors should be outfitted with cameras.

One occurred in April 2020 when a University of Miami doctor, who had been the subject of an article by the Miami Herald for helping the homeless during the pandemic, was handcuffed by a police sergeant outside his Flagami home for littering — despite pleas from the doctor’s wife who had retrieved his identification. Sgt. Mario Menegazzo said he was patrolling the area for illegal dumping.

Dr. Armen Henderson, who is Black, filed a complaint with the CIP saying he’d been profiled. Menegazzo eventually let him go and the encounter was captured on surveillance video at the Hendersons’ home. But there was no audio or police body camera footage available, because as a sergeant at the time, Menegazzo wasn’t required to wear the gear.

CIP board members determined Menegazzo should have been disciplined for pointing a finger in Henderson’s face, for not wearing a mask and for handcuffing the doctor. Internal Affairs, however, ruled that handcuffing Henderson was justified, saying the doctor failed to obey a police order. The sergeant was reprimanded in a letter for being discourteous.

Jorge Colina, who was Miami’s police chief at the time, said outfitting sergeants and supervisors with the body cameras is a no-brainer. The former chief said a body camera could have provided investigators a clearer picture of the dynamics during the encounter in front of Henderson’s home.

“Certainly, the idea that his [Menegazzo’s] motivation was that the doctor was Black, you can feel that more with a body worn camera, if that was the case,” Colina said. “I think it would have given us a better window.”

©2022 Miami Herald.
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